“They look awful and sound terrible” is how one wag mischievously put it when The Horrors first reared their mops of black hair for the general public to properly gaze upon. Indeed, is there a more unlikely band to still be a band, since coming out of the mid-noughties indie revivalist period? With their cartoon-goth image and their super-short noise garage songs, many commentators simply dismissed them as fly-by-night operators, given an almighty leg up by both the music and fashion press, before they had paid their dues, as it were. Here today, gone tomorrow. Good for a laugh and a mess about with but, when the serious stuff was happening, you’d quickly reach out for an Arctic Monkeys, or a Bloc Party.
My word, The Horrors are the musical equivalent of Jeremy Corbyn. They’ve proved themselves sticky and durable. Damn, they are even principled! For sure, they still largely wear black and continue to look like (albeit toned down considerably from their early days) extras from an Addams Family movie, but they are in the ascendency again, confirmed by what many are hailing as their best album yet, V.
First emerging from London and Southend-on-Sea in 2005, they came together through a shared love of obscure garage, no-wave and punk vinyl. Following a chance meeting with club promoter Rhys Webb (bassist), Tom Cowan (keyboardist) and singer/lyricist Faris Badwan were booked to DJ at the infamous Junk Club in Southend, where Joe Spurgeon (drums) and Joshua Hayward (guitar) hung out.
“The main reason for doing The Horrors was we wanted to put out a seven-inch single,” said Joe in an interview he gave Brightonsfinest last year. That is what they did, in the form of the one minute and 40 second punk’o’billy thrash of the Ramones-meets-Cramps ‘Sheena Is A Parasite’. “We really didn’t have any ambition beyond making a seven inch,” Faris says. “We didn’t feel like we fitted into whatever was going on at the time. We felt like we were part of something that wasn’t happening anywhere else.”
The “mildly obsessed” Chris Cunningham had other ideas when he came across ‘Sheena Was A Parasite’ on ye olde Myspace. He decided to track the band down to offer his services. Famous for Aphex Twin’s ‘Windowlicker’ video as well as Bjork’s multi-award winning video for ‘All is Full of Love’, he hadn’t made a video for seven years until he enlisted actress Samantha Morton for a ‘starring role’ in this, subsequently partially banned (for its use of strobe lights), promo film.
With publicity thereby generated, it wasn’t long before they became NME cover stars ahead of their debut album, Strange House, even coming out in 2007, which was appropriately sub-titled Psychotic Sounds for Weirdos and Freaks. It proved to be the end of the first stage of The Horrors’ career, who wisely decided to ditch the cartoonish teenage-goth-garage look and sound for maturer pastures thereafter, beginning with Primary Colours which employed krautrock and psyche-rock along with the continuing goth overtones. It proved to be a success, far outstripping sales of their debut. They then followed this up with two self-produced top ten albums, Higher and Luminous, both venturing into less abrasive, more euphoric territories, which demonstrated that here was a very solid band of thoughtful musicians and artists not afraid to move forward and explore.
After a relatively short touring period they then decided to head back to the studio but, this time, with uber-producer Paul Epworth – at his Crouch End Studios – to help guide them to an even more eclectic and aggressive sound, and to venture further down experimental avenues. So far, V, has been winning plaudits from across the board, and is likely to see the band consolidate, maybe even raise a notch or two, their popularity. Moreover, they largely ditched the Luminous experiment, whereby individual members would create the basis for the songs before they came together in the studio. “We did try that a little bit,” says Faris, “people individually writing. Up until then it had always been all five of us in a room. The songs do transform quite a lot when we play them all together. It was a new approach and it did change the sound a little bit.”
Right from the off the adventurous spirit of The Horrors is apparent on V, lead track ‘Hologram’ features to-the-max distortion and nasty synth and basslines. “Once ‘Hologram’ took shape, in its final form I think it informed the rest of the record,” says Faris. “When I first heard that bass line it shifted the whole record… not a turning point but definitely a really important moment in the process.” Dub also comes in to the formula for the first time, via ‘Press Enter To Exit’ and the Jah Wobble/PiL reverberating deep and dubby bass of ‘Weighed Down’. Meanwhile, the sparse ‘Ghost’ is informed by an electro hip-hop beat before it morphs into prog-like terrirory, with an Adrian Belew (King Crimson) style guitar coming to the fore, and ‘Machine’ combines industrial, garage and big loud guitars. They also pick up on the dance-friendly aspect of Luminous with the widescreen New Order euphoria of ‘Something to Remember Me By’, glimmering synths building as Faris sings about leaving things behind.
What does Faris make of the new album? “I’m so close to it, it’s hard,” he says. “But to me it feels very different, and in places more aggressive. But, then again, maybe there are some more techno elements that weren’t as explicit as before. I dunno, I really don’t know what it sounds like. We spent such an intense period working on it. We were in the studio every day for long periods at a time, and staying ‘til late at night. It always takes me a while to figure out what a record actually sounds like. To me, when it comes out, I’ll be hearing it for the first time in a way.”
I relate to Faris how another artist compared the formal release of an album with sending your kid to school; they are no longer your kid, “I don’t know if many people see it like that, that the kid goes to school and they are no longer your kid,” he argues. “But, it is a bit like that, it is no longer yours when other people get to hear it. And that’s what’s good about it. But, it’s less about other people hearing it, and more about, I dunno, I guess it does turn into something else. I guess you’re right, you have something that exists in a small environment, a little room, and becomes something that exists in the world. It’s then categorised or broken down by other people’s minds.”
What about the track ‘Machine’, can you talk us through that? “I never really discuss the lyrics too much.” I venture that it is about someone who is cold, with little emotion, “That’s one way of looking at it. I always write from a personal view, but I was more interested in the idea of simulation and how close an imitation can get to the reality. I was interested in the phenomenon of the ‘uncanny valley’; if you see a doll that has a human likeness, there’s a certain point where it looks really grotesque to a human, and there’s something a bit off about it.”
A remarkable feature about The Horrors is that they are still the same exact line up they were when they lined up for their first gig, in Dalston, 2005. They’ve explored together all these different musical pastures, without so much as a peek that there might be some unhappy grumblings within the camp. “I always think how depressing it would be, the idea of the same band doing the same thing. It would be so against the whole idea of doing something creative. I’d hate to be in a band that sounds exactly the same, from album to album.” There’s a really strong organic process to the band development? “Well, yeah. It’s not even spoken about in those terms. We don’t want to be boring, basically. We want to have a good time. It’s what excites us, and is enjoyable. It tends to be the new things that are unfamiliar. We want to explore.
“We stared (the band) because we had a lot of ideas we wanted to explore, and I think that has only grown as the band has gone on. Individually we do a lot of stuff ourselves, outside of the band (Faris has hooked up with Italian-Canadian soprano Rachel Zeffira to form Cat’s Eyes, with whom he has released three albums so far). There’s a lot of stuff we want to do, that we want to achieve. Although we aren’t particularly careerist in the sense we don’t have a goal in our heads, we are bound together by the fact we want to explore musical directions and see what happens.”
The last time I saw The Horrors was at the Together The People festival, last September in Brighton. Although they had just started work on V, they were still playing material solely from their last three albums (they haven’t played anything off their debut album for quite some time now, feeling that the material doesn’t fit in with what they have subsequently made). I relay that when I interviewed Joe just prior to that show he was intending for the band to catch Brian Wilson perform his Pet Sounds album. Did you? “We didn’t get the chance of see him play unfortunately, as he was on the night before. But it was a funny thing,” he goes on to tell me. “Every time a band performs, the promoter of the show asks us if we want anything in the dressing room, or whatever. It’s called a rider, as you probably know. At the end (of the list) we always put ‘we would like a surprise’. It’s a bit of an annoying request. When you’re a promoter you just want to get the band a bag of crisps or something. So, we were playing at this festival and Brian Wilson was playing the night before us, and we discovered afterwards that the promoter had been going around wondering, what am I going to get these guys for their surprise? We’ve had a range of things over the years, although some promoters just ignore it. Some of them go the extra mile,” he laughs. “Probably the weirdest one we had was this wooden crate in the dressing room where there was this girl dressed as a cat inside it. At this particular festival they gave us Brian Wilson’s bicycle horn, which is on Pet Sounds. The drummer from Brian Wilson’s band gave it to us.
Earlier this year the band had the opportunity to perform at enormo-domes, as support to Depeche Mode, a band similar to The Horrors in that they deploy a semi-goth image and have made it (albeit much more spectacularly) to the big-time. “It was cool, and pretty intense. Especially for a band like them, you would never have predicted they would have become such a huge band. They were basically a lo-fi, DIY, synth band. It’s interesting when you see people like that, and how they’ve done it.”
So, you’ve made it to album number five then, hence the title V, “We were thinking it was a kind of ‘fuck you’ as well,” offers Faris. Hindsight is a wonderful thing. Indeed, they are not so much a horror show, as deeply impressive psych experimentalists, who continue to operate outside the norm, doing their own thing, on their own terms.